Europe and Its Refugees

After Danish Jews fled to their neutral neighbours in 1943 and Sweden agreed to offer temporary refuge to some thirty thousand survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, a country deeply averse to foreigners transformed. So can Europe today. An article of the "Berlin Anthology".

In the Summer of 1938, at the initiative of US President Franklin Roosevelt, thirty-two nations convened in the beautiful French resort of Evian to agree on a common refugee program to save the desperate Jews of Germany and Austria. After nine days of deliberation they agreed on nothing of the sort. Instead, they all went home and for all practical purposes closed their borders. One of the nations doing so was Sweden, even begging Nazi-Germany to stamp the passports of Jews with a large J in red, to facilitate the process of weeding them out.

Even as war broke out and Germany sealed its borders and the number of Jews knocking on the doors of Sweden trickled down to a few hundred, the doors largely remained closed. Only in October of 1943, when the winds of war had turned, and seven thousand Danish Jews were shipped across the straits of Öresund to knock on the doors of their neutral Swedish neighbors, they were to open. And this time generously so.

And so they did again in the summer of 1945, when Sweden agreed to offer temporary refuge to some thirty thousand survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, among them a young man who had survived Auschwitz and who was to be my father.

This turned out to be a new beginning not only for my father but for Sweden as well. Within a few years, a country deeply averse to foreigners was transforming into a country actively recruiting them for work in its booming industries. In the 1970’s a policy of active labor immigration was replaced by a welcoming refugee policy, and by the early 1990’s Sweden had more foreign-born inhabitants per capita than United States and most European countries.

Today almost every sixth inhabitant of Sweden is  foreign-born, a majority of them having arrived as asylum seekers or as part of Sweden’s program for family reunion. This year alone the Swedish Migration Agency is bracing for up to hundred thousand asylum seekers, mostly from Syria, amounting to almost one percent of the total Swedish population.

In the town where once I was the rare dark-head on the block, more than half of the population now originates from Christian communities in the Middle East, with every third inhabitant being foreign-born, many of them seeing Södertälje as the cultural capital of a diasporic Assyrian/Syrian nation, arguably making my hometown a somewhat spectacular case in what so far has been an exceptional nation when it comes to receiving and settling refugees.

If the number of asylum applications approved by Sweden in 2014, exactly 33 025, had been proportionally extrapolated to the EU as a whole, the total number of settled refugees that year would have exceeded a million, to be compared with the actual figure of 183 365, to which Sweden contributed nearly a fifth while several member states contributed near to nothing.

There is little reason to believe that this exception will last. Not when anti-refugee parties are having their day all over Europe. Not when such a party has become the third largest in Sweden. Not when even a modest redistribution of some 40000 refugees among the member-states of EU cannot be agreed upon.

What would it take to turn the downward spiral of anti-refugee policies around? Or more precisely, what would it take to make the Swedish exception a source of inspiration rather than a source of resentment and mockery?

A beginning of sorts would perhaps be for European leaders to remind themselves and their nations of Evian 1938. Although not every nation might share the peculiar “moral” self-image of Sweden, every nation ought to remember that a Europe that was once unable or unwilling to shoulder and share its human responsibilities and legal obligations towards those seeking its protection, soon  became a Europe unable to prevent its own moral and political self-degradation and self-destruction.

By sleep-walking towards Evian all over again, Europeans should at least know that this is what they are doing.

And make a consorted effort to wake up.

Translated from German by Gregor Dotzauer.

This article was first published in "Der Tagespiegel" on 24th August 2015. Togehter with the International Literature Festival Berlin we have called on authors to contemplate the fates of refugees and asylum-seekers in literary form. The "Berlin Anthology" is now available for download.